Dunkirk is both the quietest and loudest of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s films. Known for lengthy, cerebral films overstuffed with exposition, Dunkirk is exactly the opposite: lean, action-oriented, even emotional. Driven neither by character nor story, the emphasis is all on the mise-en-scene, image and sound, the immensity of what is right in front of us as the audience, and in front of the characters. There are no wordy speeches explaining the situation or the character’s backstories; the opening 15 minutes, which contain perhaps two sentences of dialogue, are thrilling with their immediate immersion of the audience into an impossible situation: hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers surrounded by the Germans on a wide open beach. Various images stick with me and still elicit strong feelings: an airplane without fuel silently gliding through the air; the eerie and discomforting feeling of a bombed ship tipping onto its side; the water level rising swiftly as men scramble to get above decks; a pilot struggling to free himself from his downed plane before he sinks with it; the sunset on the beach. The word that comes to mind for many of these images: majestic.
Some critics have noted that it’s difficult for them to find an emotional center to Dunkirk. They, perhaps, long for a character to connect with on a deeper level or a richer sense of affect than the film produces. For me, the entire film is emotion and affect. It left me weeping, both during the film itself, and long after I had left the theater. The immersive nature of the 70 mm and/or IMAX format created an enveloping atmosphere, where I could feel everything occurring on-screen. The blow of the gunshots, the shaking of the Spitfire engines, the ringing in the ears after a bomb explodes nearby–Dunkirk nearly drowns you in its wake. So much has already been said about the “right” way to see Dunkirk, yet perhaps the form and environment really do matter here–Nolan used IMAX cameras and 70 mm film for a reason. If you can see this film in a theater with the largest screen and loudest sound possible, it’ll be worth your while.
The emotion goes far beyond the film form, as there are involving characters and rich performances throughout Dunkirk. Mark Rylance portrays a civilian boat captain charged with a mission to go to the French beach to rescue fellow Englishmen. His understated performance is marvelous, mostly for the rich presence of his voice. Equally calming and commanding, his tone and inflections, his rhythm and volume, elevate what could have been either a melodramatic or a mundane role. As a pilot of a British Spitfire plane, Tom Hardy gives an equally affecting performance, yet his performative power shines through his eyes. Even with his face covered in a pilot’s mask and goggles for most of the film, Hardy conveys emotional depth and sincerity, sometimes only through raised eyebrows or squints. For both of these men, their decisions and actions are notable and heroic, with emotionally-rich performances almost entirely via facial expressions and posture alone. The weight of the narrative lies mainly on a young soldier portrayed by newcomer Fionn Whitehead (he’s called “Tommy” on IMDB, but I can’t recall ever hearing his name) and his struggle to find a way off the beach to get home. Though he’s a bit devious and self-serving in his methods for survival, he’s certainly no villain, and stands up for others in pivotal moments of decision.
Dunkirk‘s triune narrative structure weaves between various timeframes and perspective. With a week on the beach, a day on a boat, and an hour in the air, these temporal shifts may leave some viewers confused as to the progress of time. Sometimes what may be mere minutes feels like hours, and vice versa. Day and night overlap, and it can be difficult to discern just how long time has passed for certain characters. I think this confusion about the passing of time is intentional; it’s a brilliant way to structure a war film, where a sense of time can become lost in both the chaos of the battle and the mundane waiting in between the intensity. Time has been a theme in Nolan’s previous films: he danced around and reversed the timeline in Memento through keen editing and storytelling; time passes at different rates in the dream worlds of Inception and the extraterrestrial worlds of Interstellar. In Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer’s pounding, emotive score is marked with a ticking motif, akin to a stopwatch clicking the seconds away. I can say with confidence that Dunkirk is overtly about time, its passage and nature, its power over us and our submission to its will. When one has to wait for days on a wide open beach while the enemy lurks unseen or drops bombs from above, time feels like an enemy. It was deeply affecting for me when Zimmer’s clocklike score suddenly stopped at a key moment near the finale. The ticking stopped; time stood still, and victory can be found in sleep (another common posture where time passes unbeknownst to us).
The name Dunkirk literally means “church in the dunes.” Nolan’s films are notably materialist, lacking any language or acknowledgement of religion or spirituality. While that mostly remains the case with this film, the opening title sequences describe the need for hope, for “a miracle.” Though this is likely in reference to “the miracle at Dunkirk” of the “little ships” who served as transports during the evacuation, it is worth mentioning that we are reduced (or elevated) to using religious language for this feat of bravery, courage, and human decency. When the little ships arrive, it’s a powerful moment of catharsis–what the soldiers have been anxiously awaiting has arrived, and they are able to go home. The term “Dunkirk spirit” refers to the solidarity of the British people in times of adversity, the virtue that allows for a stiff upper lip and non-anxious presence in the midst of what feels like total despair. It’s a virtue worth remembering and emulating, perhaps one we Americans could learn from. In our present American political climate, where divisiveness, deceit, and lack of accountability for actions or words are the modus operandi and everything (including people and morality) can feel temporary or disposable, the quiet resolve of dutiful service, courageous self-sacrifice, and compassion for others–even others seemingly undeserving of such compassion–is a breath of fresh air. When it feels like the present-day world is an environment marked by fear and chicanery, Dunkirk is a welcome reminder from history about the significance of survival and the powerful narrative of hope. Makes me want to drink a cup of tea and move to the UK.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5013056/